In “Scales of Cultural Influence: Malawian Consumption of Foreign Media,” Jonathon Gray challenges existing theories of cultural influence, particularly as they relate to the impact of foreign media such as film, television, and music on a nation’s culture. Rather than looking for signs of domination of one culture over another, we must consider the ways in which multiple cultures compete for influence over a single nation.
To explore how cultural influence circulates today, Gray employs a variety of qualitative methods to analyze the impact of foreign media on Malawian national culture. Malawi serves as a particularly interesting case due to a paucity of domestic film and television production and its weak music industry. This context presents an opportunity to examine the ways in which Malawian national identity is shaped by the influence of competing foreign cultures.
Gray’s analysis of film and television consumption exposes competition between Nigeria, the United States, and, to a lesser extent, China. Fifty to eighty percent of DVD inventories in shopping areas studied were reserved for American film and television, with Nigerian and Chinese films making up the remaining portion. Despite the clear economic dominance of American media in this sector, American cultural influence is still perceived as foreign. Some respondents expressed concern that younger generations of Malawians would become influenced by the violence and crime rampant in the American films popularly consumed. With this backdrop, Nigerian films emerge as a refreshing alternative due to their expression of ‘African culture, identity, and dignity.’ Thus, despite American market domination, some respondents resist American influence while adopting Nigerian films as “local” and “African.” Meanwhile, Gray’s respondents claimed to know nothing about Chinese culture, suggesting that not all foreign media bares the same cultural influence.
Although Gray finds that music tastes are both more varied across respondents and less polarized than film and television preferences, they generate more fears and suspicions of cultural imperialism. Respondents expressed concern about the influence of profanity and violence in American rap music on younger generations. Similar to their perceptions of Nigerian film, many respondents positively associated the influence of Zambian music with local identity due largely to shared language. Again, despite its prevalence, respondents often viewed American music as foreign and threatening while adopting Zambian music as “African” and “local.”
Foreign media in Malawi is characterized by competition between multiple cultural influences. Gray’s work indicates that we must move beyond an understanding of cultural imperialism rooted in the domination of one culture over another. Rather, more subtle processes are at play. In this case, foreign film, television, and music lead to perceived degrees of difference from and similarity to “the other.” This helps Malawian citizens craft their own identity in response, latching onto some foreign cultures and distancing themselves from others. Future studies into cultural imperialism must consider how national, regional, and international influences interact to shape local culture.
Gray, Jonathon. 2014. “Scales of Cultural Influence: Malawian Consumption of Foreign Media.” Media, Culture, and Society, 36 (7): 982-997. DOI: 10.1177/0163443714536081